SOAS University of London

Philanthropic donation to research the histories of objects from China’s Yuanmingyuan or ‘Summer Palace’

9 March 2018
 Ruins of the Yuanmingyuan

Louise Tythacott, Pratapaditya Pal Senior Lecturer in Curating and Museology of Asian Art, has been awarded a major philanthropic donation to undertake research on the histories and displays of objects from the Yuanmingyuan, or old ‘Summer Palace’, in Beijing.

Initiated by the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662-1722) in the early eighteenth century, the ‘Summer Palace’ was developed by the Yongzheng (r.1723-1735) and Qianlong emperors (r. 1736-1795), and used during the eighteenth and nineteenth century as the principle residence of Qing dynasty emperors. It housed part of China’s most important imperial art collection. In October 1860, at the culmination of the Second Opium War, British and French regiments looted the buildings in the Yuanmingyuan: it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of objects were taken from the site, many of these now scattered around the world, in private collections and public museums.

The project will trace the trajectories of Yuanmingyuan objects from China to Britain and France, and will explore the succession of meanings and values attributed to these imperial artefacts in the West - their existence as commodities in auction houses; their lives in international exhibitions and public displays; and their status as curiosities, art objects or ‘trophies of war’ in a range of different museums.

Shichun Lei has been appointed research assistant on the project, which will involve research in major museums, libraries, archives and auction houses across the UK, as well as in Paris.  

The project will run until January 2019, and will result in a publication which traces the diaspora and displays of Yuanmingyuan artefacts in Britain and France.